This photographer's first solo exhibition is a captivating celebration of Toronto's diversity

Toronto means many things to many people — and Zahra Siddiqui's "The Invisible Majority" is her opportunity to document and define the city she calls home.

Zahra Siddiqui shines a light on the "invisible majority" in her newest work

A piece from Zahra Siddiqui's The Invisible Majority. (Zahra Siddiqui)

Like most world-class cities, Toronto means many things to many people. For Zahra Siddiqui, her first solo photography exhibit The Invisible Majority is her opportunity to document and define the city she calls home and share it with the world.

Since I've known Zahra, I have rarely seen her without a camera in her hand. A self-taught photographer, she has been taking portraits of the people around her for the past five years — and these muses are not your average Joes. From painter and architect Komi Olaf to singer and activist Rosina Kazi (of the group lal), Zahra captures many of the DJs, comedians, producers, actors, designers, models and photographers helping to shape a cultural renaissance throughout the city.

The Invisible Majority is running through the end of October at Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park, and although the collection of 150 images includes several individuals from New York, Trinidad and Tobago, its overwhelming intent is clear: this is a tribute to Toronto. When I went to visit the exhibit last week, Zahra took me on a guided tour as she spoke about her inspiration and process.

"For me, this is my time stamp," she says. "This is the consciousness of a society that I have direct contact with. This is the beautiful part of the world and it should be placed on a pedestal, should be given attention, should be valued."

A piece from Zahra Siddiqui's The Invisible Majority. (Zahra Siddiqui)

Zahra's parents immigrated to Canada from Pakistan and she grew up in Scarborough, a place known for its rich ethnic diversity. Zahra describes her mother as a peace poet who raised her under a philosophy known as "The Cosmic Way." "We meditated everyday and read from all the scriptures. The purpose [of 'The Cosmic Way'] is to be conscious of the universe, to be one with the universe. It means to stop and look around you and see how beautiful the things are that are right in front of our eyes."

This philosophy helped Zahra develop a practice of mindfulness that she says was the ultimate guide for her lens. "When I say mindfulness I mean being conscious of people of colour, the space they take, the skin colour they own," she says. "My point of view is making sure that I see them and appreciate them for the smallest details."

For me, this is my time stamp. This is the consciousness of a society that I have direct contact with. This is the beautiful part of the world and it should be placed on a pedestal, should be given attention, should be valued.- Zahra   Siddiqui

Representation is an issue that has occupied Zahra's thoughts for most of her life. Growing up, she never met any female Pakistani visual artists — and this absence only fuelled her desire to create content. However, she became frustrated with the limits of photography, so she decided to experiment with incorporating mixed media into her process. Using acrylic pouring medium, African textiles, feathers from Trinidad Carnival costumes, Indian fabrics and collaging, Zahra was able to create new layers of meaning in each image. 

For example, in a series entitled Baadshah & Malka ("King and Queen" in Urdu), she incorporated elements of gold into every canvas. "It's to represent royalty. It's to represent where I place these people in the world. We're royal. We are living in sensitive times. It's a very delicate time. People of colour are sad. So I needed to create a space and create a body of work that made people of colour feel proud."

Zahra Siddiqui's The Grid. (Tamara Sylvester)

With The Invisible Majority, Zahra's masterpiece is her "grid": a collection of 135 small canvases. Each one captures a different individual who is currently making a creative and cultural mark. It is a captivating and colourful tribute, and as I gazed at it, I felt a stirring sense of pride in Toronto.

Notably, the opening of the show fell on the same date as the first night of the Toronto International Film Festival. With all of the media in the city focused on one of the world's most prestigious celebrations of film, Zahra's press releases languished unanswered in their inboxes — but her muses made sure to spread the word. On opening night, the gallery was packed to capacity and The Invisible Majority became the largest art exhibition opening at the Regent Park location to date.

"I couldn't even see the room," she says. "People were crying. People were thanking me. People just felt humbled because I hadn't spoken about the show. None of these people knew they were gonna be in it. None of these people even knew I was doing mixed media. Nobody knew for the last year what I was creating for the city. This [exhibit] was really a gift. This isn't about me. This is about us."

The Invisible Majority. Featuring Zahra Siddiqui. To October 31 at Daniels Spectrum, Toronto. www.danielspectrum.ca

Watch Amanda Parris on Exhibitionists Sunday at 4:30pm (5pm NT) on CBC TV.

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